John Ruskin: The Father of Modern Sketchbook Practice

September 26, 2018
My third copy of “The Elements of Drawing.” I had my first copy from the time I was 12 until I was 20 and in graduate school. That copy, filled with my handwritten notes and “discussions” was stolen from my office. This, my most recent copy is tagged with clusters of Post-it Notes™. Its margins are filled with new discussions I’ve had with Ruskin. I’ve found that you can return to the conversation often over your lifetime. This book is available from Dover Publications.

Tuesday in a Facebook group I belong to someone asked: “Which country originated the practice of the sketchbook?”

Group members, myself included, got sidestepped into discussionsof what was a sketchbook, and the history of bookmaking, and I even looked into the Oxford English Dictionary and an online dictionary to see when the word “sketchbook” went into popular use in English print.  

Then off I went on my bike ride and before I got to Franklin Avenue Bridge (which is less than 2 minutes away) I realized that I should have written about John Ruskin.

As the ride progressed I put together my case for John Ruskin as the father of the modern sketchbook practice.

Who Was Ruskin and What Were the Forces in Action During His Life?

John Ruskin was a British artist, writer, and for a long while the leading art critic of his generation. He was born in 1819 and died in 1900.

He came from a prosperous merchant family which allowed him to take part in the ritual of the “Grand Tour” which grew in popularity during the late 18th century and early 19th century.

This was the practice of wealthy British men, and a few women, touring Europe—seeing the sights, the towns, the mountains, the people, the art, and architecture. In an age before photography it was “easy” to take a set of watercolors and brushes on tour, and stop and sketch.

In a Europe that was always squabbling the years of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) also created an environment for Ruskin to start an art movement. 

Waring governments need information—they need diagrams of city foundations, records of roadways and crop production, population counts… Up to this time there had always been military artists who gathered this material (periodically DaVinci did this type of work). Watercolor was the primary medium used to do this just before and during Ruskin’s lifetime. The end of the Napoleonic Wars had ripple effects in the culture, and returning military artists were part of this ripple effect.

Ruskin’s life also overlapped with the Industrial Revolution (1760 to 1840). By the mid 18th century (i.e. even before his birth) Britain was the dominant commercial nation in the world.

The Industrial Revolution had several side effects that relate to sketchbook use. First it created a rising middle class with more leisure time. And this translated to more travel (even if only around Britain) and more time for crafts and hobbies like watercolor.

Another side effect of the Industrial Revolution was the speedy manufacture of goods for a growing market. Companies like Winsor and Newton bought up patents for various art-supply innovations and met the demand for supplies coming not just from professional artists but hobbyists. (Think 19th century Dick Blick.)

During this timeframe watercolors went from being available as a specialty item mixed for you or by you, to being available in cakes (which were solid and hard and had to be ground much the same as you might prepare sumi ink) to moist pans, and then in tubes— after an American living in London patented the invention of the lead tube in 1848.  Winsor and Newton purchased the patent and began commercial production—there were the consumer numbers to support it. And Ruskin was a part of making that happen. 

The Book That Changed Art Instruction

For Ruskin drawing had been such a positive action in his life, that he became an advocate of on location and direct observational sketching. 

In 1856 John Ruskin did something that changed art education—he wrote  The Elements of Drawing. 

Since the publication of his other books on art he was constantly flooded by requests for instruction from the readers. He had also previously taught various people how to draw and paint by sending lessons through the mail.

He wanted to create a guide or course that would be useful for any individual who wanted to learn how to draw (and paint) without the benefit of a nearby school or art master. 

In writing “Elements” he created a whole genre of publishing that still thrives today. And the bones of his instructions can still be seen in that industry.

By writing an art instruction book that was a best seller he flooded the country with his book, just as his writings on art and architecture influenced the country and culture.

By writing an art instruction book that was not a manual for professional artists but a book for the general public Ruskin created a growing market of people who wanted to purchase art supplies. Supplies which could now be better produced because of the economies of scale of market size and supply made possible by the Industrial Revolution.

And because he wrote a best seller at a critical time in the British Empire his book found its way across the world throughout that empire—to Australia, Canada, India, Africa, and even Hong Kong and Shanghai in China; wherever missionaries and merchants of the Empire landed.

I found a copy in a furnished flat when I moved with my family to Australia at the age of 10. I have throughout my life found people around the world who have grown up with a copy of this book in their family homes.

Ruskin wrote an approachable guide that anyone, no matter how isolated, could use to learn how to draw.

The Perfect Storm

With all these cultural and economical forces in play, from the Napoleonic Wars and the resultant peace, the Industrial Revolution and its economic changes, Ruskin solidified his sketching from life movement through his art criticism. It wasn’t just that he saw painting as part of the celebration of the natural world. He elevated the work of J. M. W. Turner. (There was more than a little bit of self interest in that action, as Ruskin was himself a talented watercolorist.)

The effects of this perfect storm lasted past his fall from grace in 1876 when he lost a libel case brought by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. That was the moment when many felt Ruskin’s views on art and culture had over reached. New ideas were being discussed. 

But he’d already generated so much momentum, been responsible for so many people adopting the sketchbook mindset that even photography (in its sleeker and more portable form beyond wet plates) couldn’t kill it. Soldiers took sketchbooks into the trenches in World War I, and again with them in World War II. Some soldiers were artists who returned to the practice of their craft when they demobbed, and to the teaching of art. All of that again extended Ruskin’s influence. His ideas on ecology and building conservation came in and out of popularity, always touching a nerve.

He did such a superlative job in writing his instruction manual that generations of writers have pulled from it, sometimes not even realizing they were because they thought they were quoting someone else, when they in fact were quoting Ruskin.

It was a sketchbook practice movement and it was messy and people took from it what they wanted, but it kept people working in sketchbooks.

And empires (and republics) continued to need intel.

If you want an art movement you need an informed and indoctrinated popular base.

Together with the right spokesperson you generate momentum. Ruskin generated that. That’s why I believe he’s the father of the modern sketchbook practice.

My Own Sketchbook Practice

I came to sketchbooks at the age of three at the insistence of my mother—“keep the child occupied.” It was suggested by a family friend who had been in the military. He’d noticed my ability to observe and recall even minute but important details. He wanted ways to encourage that—the military approach. He was also, I found out much later, a fan of Ruskin.

And while I thumbed through the “Elements” copy I discovered in our rented flat when I was 10, it was almost another two years before a teacher put the book in my hand insisting that I read it. (More “keep the child occupied.”)

Ruskin was a complicated man. He jumped from topic to topic; he had views that would annoy and even anger most of us living today. Yet he could recognize mastery and articulate it so that others could understand it. And he understood the creative process and could articulate it so that others could learn in isolation and execute it.

From my vantage point 118 years after his death I see how far reaching his influence was and continues to be. 

You can see John Ruskin’s Teaching Collection at Oxford, online at this link. 

If you enjoyed reading this post you might also enjoy Productivity: J.M.W. Turner.

  1. Reply

    Fantastic post, Roz! I’m looking for a copy of Elements as we speak…

    1. Reply

      So glad you enjoyed it. I envy you your first reading. Read it aloud to catch the rhythm of the language. Engage and write notes in the margins. Have fun!

    • Kathy
    • September 26, 2018

    What a brilliant post, thank you Roz! Ditto the jaw-dropping and entertaining article on Productivity and Turner.

    1. Reply

      Glad you liked both posts. The Turner post is one of my favorites, written right near the beginning of my blogging. Thanks for reading! Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed them.

    • Lynn
    • September 26, 2018

    Thank you, Roz.
    I read this and the Turner piece. Lovely writing and such interesting reflection. I did not know we could see so many of these works online! Thank you for all you share with us. Thank you for all you teach us!

    1. Reply

      Lynn so glad you found these two posts useful! Thanks for reading.

    • Bernard
    • September 29, 2018

    Thanks Rob found this historic piece very interesting

    1. Reply

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for letting me know.

    • Laura
    • October 2, 2018

    So enjoyed this and the Turner piece (and immediately requested the Turner show catalog via ILL, I do love me a mackerel).

    1. Reply

      So glad you enjoyed the posts. You will love the catalog. So much yummy stuff to see.

    • Tina Koyama
    • July 9, 2019

    Now I can hardly wait to read Ruskin! Thanks again!

    1. Reply

      I hope you have as much fun with him as I have.

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